If you’re a lover of French cinema, Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World is a dream to behold. Based on Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play of the same name, Marion Cottilard, Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel star in this superb look at a family’s unimaginable turmoil when Louis (Ulliel) returns home to tell his family that he’s dying. Grief? Of course. Except this is a Xavier Dolan film, and all the characters have their own crosses to bear and the full spectrum of mixed feelings towards Louis and his return after being estranged for so many years.
It’s Only The End of The World is a precisely framed film with captivating close-ups so we never miss a beat. As each of the actors get their turn to shine, we bond with as if we ourselves are part of the family. The color palette Dolan employs is brown and earthy, much different from what we’ve seen in his films before, but there’s a reason for this as I soon found out when I sat down with Dolan at the Sunset Tower Hotel.
Dolan took me into his world and we talked about his camera choices, the narcissism of the characters, and why he likes to wear so many hats when he makes a film. It’s Only The End of The World is Canada’s official entry for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language film.
AD: I have watched this film three times, once to watch, the second time to take notes, and the third just because it’s a dream. I notice you’re shooting in tight shots for a lot of it.
Xavier Dolan: Well, one thing you notice about the playwright’s vernacular when you read the play, and I regret that you read the subtitles in English, I made them myself, trying to be as close as I could to his vernacular so you could understand the repetitiveness, the loquaciousness, and how verbose they are, how nervous they are, how they correct their own grammar mistakes. That was important because that was really at the core of his approach. He speaks in a language that’s very nervous, that measures to our own nervosity when we are around people that we want to impress and people that impress us. We feel intimated and we stutter, and we repeat ourselves. Even that exact vernacular is intricate, and we don’t speak like that. We don’t speak in tongues that are that intricate. I wanted to keep that in French. It was important to me that we could feel this off thing, but their body language was to normalize that, that’s what the actors and I worked so hard in doing, is that they would appropriate themselves that vernacular and make it sound normal.
This play is about, I’m sorry, I love you, I forgive you, it’s about how could you do this to me? It’s about I missed you, and yet no one says that ever. It’s about detours after detours after detours, and never what they really think or feel. So, there’s something frustrating about that vernacular where people are just running around in circles and circles and they’re talking about themselves, and in the end, they talk but they’re talking to no one, and thinking out loud. It’s written as we think which is why there’s something robotic about the structure, it’s discombobulating. I wanted to keep that absolutely. The irony about how he writes is he has a very precise style. It’s sometimes overwhelming in how literary it sounds, you think that would only work on stage. He knows that. He’s telling you, I know my style is too much, it’s over the top, and the structure is sometimes repetitive and insufferable, but in the end when the characters leave the stage, there’s this heartbreaking thing about the irony that they’ve said everything but what mattered, and the playwright knows that.
When you want to honor that on TV, the only way to visually pay a tribute to that and what it was on paper is to put a lot of emphasis and focus on everything that remains unsaid and untold. The only way for me to do that was to be very close to the characters and understand the facial language in how the eyes were examining and observing how the mouths were breathing or how the lips were trembling. In the smallest gestures, understand the contradiction between what people were thinking and what they were actually saying, that’s why I wanted to be so close. I also wanted to be closer for a much simpler reason that can be expressed, I wanted to be close to the actors because I didn’t want to miss a thing that I was doing.
AD: That’s what I loved about it, this close proximity we had to them. I walked away thinking about how we, as humans interact with each other.
XD: Did you notice when he opens his mouth and he’s about to say something, but they say, “So, me.”
AD: Yes. That’s the narcissism we see in these characters.
XD: These characters are narcissists and insecurity is what narcissism stems from, they’re narcissists but they’re also people who have insurmountable fears and anxiety of being alone, which they are. They have the anxiety of not having succeeded, not impressing. They have all these fears colliding and intertwining, and they are determined to seek answers. But rather than asking questions, they make statements about who is he, what he did, what went wrong. I think there are ten or eleven moments where the character is about to say, “I’m here because of…” He’s constantly interrupted because people don’t want him to say it, or because they’re not focused on him, or they’re not listening to him.
When he’s in the room with his sister, and she offers him the cigarette, he says no. She says, “I knew you’d say no, you’re not a pothead and you’ve never been into drugs.” He’s like, “Actually it could be good for me. I usually don’t smoke, but lately pot has been–” and he’s about to say good, but then she interrupts him and you see her go back to talking about herself. It happens on so many occasions in the film.
AD: What about the color palette that you chose, there didn’t seem to be much aside from red and blue.
XD: It was brown and blue with a bit of red with the mom. The only thing that’s red in this entire film is the mother.
AD: What was the choice behind that?
XD: I’ve been making a lot of films about mothers and sons. Mommy was very Californian, very blue and yellow, and soaked with sunsets. It was very happy and buoyant. The thing about this film, I felt that I wasn’t making a film about adults only and that the kid in this film, was the stranger and the only exception out of the whole group. Before, I had always focused on children. Mommy is about this kid. Tom At The Farm is about young adults, as was Laurence Anyways. Heartbeats is about post-teenagers who are having a love life and exploring different things. I Killed My Mother is about a teen. So there’s this progression where you’re going up this ladder of age and time, and I feel like in It’s Only The End of the World, we’ve gone to another generation of people, and we are among adults. This is an adult only film. I wanted the house to have deep colors. I talked to Andre and said that I wanted brown, blue and white. I wanted it to be cold, like an afternoon in England somewhere, and the light is rainy and cold.
AD: And gloomy.
XD: Exactly. That’s what we ended up doing, except where you dive into the character’s past, then you get the sunset and the colors, and the reds, greens, and nature. Otherwise, it was very cold. I had never done that before. All my films had been golden and yellow. Tom At The Farm was very naturalistic. There was no precise palette, it was beige and pale browns, and flat, plain and grimy. I wanted something earthy for this film, so the kitchen is brown. The living room is a deep green. The sister’s room is blue and brown.
AD: In this film, you’re wearing a lot of hats including costume design. So, let’s talk about the look of the costumes and why you get involved in that aspect?
XD: I always do it because it’s a passion for me, and I have a hard time letting go of that. I can’t delegate that. Aesthetically, I’m really into everything that touches the visuals from the decorating to the architecture, design, costume design, and fashion design. I can really see myself living as a costume designer and working for other directors, I would love that. Like stop two years and do that for other people. I would love that so much. I enjoy doing it. The problem with film-making is that at one point you realize that from the writing to editing to sound editing to character writing, everything. They’re all stars that are connected and when you connect those dots, I’m not a cinematographer, but my guess is that, if I were I would do that as well in my films. Steven Soderbergh is a cinematographer, he’s done that a lot for himself. Perhaps because he feels that he is in the best possible position to understand what he himself wants and because in his own mind he doesn’t have to explain it to anyone else. He doesn’t have to answer to no one, he just does it like he wants. I would never be able to do that. I would never be able to do that. I don’t understand film stock, and I don’t understand how to expose film.
So, when you realize how much costume design is connected and essential to character writing, you’re like, “Oh my God! I know what fabric I want to put on her. I know what dress I want her to wear. I know the shoes I want her to wear. I know I want her to have a hickey on her neck because that is part of her costume. I’m sorry it just is.
AD: Everything we see on screen is deliberate.
XD: The knuckles that you see on the brother, the most important thing of this entire film is this little detail. In the end when they come to fists, and you’ve got this shot of his fists, and if you ask me, this is the whole film right there. About violence. About communication. About what happens when we can’t communicate, because when we can’t communicate we become violent, we shut down, and we cut people out. This is a movie about people who can’t think, who can’t listen, who can’t have compassion, and who can’t be commiserate towards each other. What happens at the end is someone who wants to hit the other, it’s the finale of our communication system and how failed it. We can see it playing out.
AD: Especially in today’s society.
XD: Well, they don’t know how to communicate with each other. They don’t know how to listen to each other. They don’t know how to walk in each other’s shoes. Communication is at the base of everything, and we’re not a society that doesn’t communicate anymore.
Anyway, I make costumes because for me it’s character writing, and it’s just essential. I see so many things when I write. Sometimes, I’ll go and buy shorts or a piece of fabric for the dress, or the necklace and I can’t help it.
AD: All of that is part of the character.
XD: It’s the first thing you’ll see before they open their mouths to say that first line, you’re going to have an idea of who that person is.
AD: When you work on the score, how do you decide to add a scored piece or a song?
XD: A lot of the songs are already in the script, so their place is pre-determined and quite clear. When we’re putting it together in the editing suite, you understand what needs the music and what doesn’t. It’s instinctive. The thing is the dialogue, the camera movement, the slow motion, the sound of a bird,all of that is music and ready. There’s a score in this entire film, but do we need more than that, or do we let the film breathe. It’s all music. Are we going to put another layer on top of that? That’s your decision but generally, it’s clear.
AD: You’ll be shooting your next movie in London soon. Have you found a location yet?
XD: I will be shooting there soon. In fact, I’ll be shooting in Harrow.
AD: Wow. That’s a great location.
XD: The family lives in the outskirts and Greater London. I don’t want to insult anyone and say suburban London. But, yes, we will be shooting there in April or May.
AD: That’s going to be a nice time.
XD: Magnolias will be blooming and blossoming.
With that, we wrapped our conversation, but we talked about his Harry Potter tattoos, and bonded over how rare it is to find a fellow Slytherin. Yes, Xavier Dolan is a Slytherin.